International outcry as Brazilian government grants license for construction of dam on Xingu River

On 1 February, the Brazilian government announced it had given the go-ahead for the construction of a new dam on the Xingu River in the northern state of Pará. International environmental watchdogs quickly expressed their outrage over the controversial project, which they believe will cause widespread devastation in the area while also adding to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

According to Amazon Watch, an organization that works to protect the rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin, the dam will flood approximately 400 square kilometers of land used for agriculture. There has also been widespread anger at the fact that the construction will cause the mass displacement of thousands of indigenous people in the area. This will greatly impact native populations, like for example the Juruna Indians who inhabit the area of the lower and middle Xingu region.

Construction of the Belo Monte dam will cost upwards of $3 billion, will require 85,000 workers, and upon completion, would become one of the world's largest hydroelectric dams. The new project comes in the wake of a previous attempt to construct a dam in the area, which was abandoned 10 years ago amid international pressure. Christian Poirier, the Brazil program coordinator from Amazon Watch, told MediaGlobal: "The Belo Monte project demonstrates the reckless way through which the Brazilian government seeks to meet its stated development needs and its profit-driven goals. Brazil's development bank BNDES is eager to make a massive infusion of public funds – up to 80 percent of the project's $12.3 to $17.5 billion price tag – in spite of the many financial, social, and environmental uncertainties with this project. Belo Monte has generated enormous controversy in Brazil...the indigenous communities had not been adequately studied, nor have these communities participated adequately in public hearings."

Agribusiness is a rapidly growing industry in the Pará region and soybean production is prominent in the area. However, the industry has brought trouble for the local communities, where long-term poverty is combined with increasing social problems. Additionally, Roberto Lamego, from SALVEASERRA, a Brazilian environmental organization told MediaGlobal: "Once more we can see that for Brazilian politicians and entrepreneurs, protection of the environment and of minorities' rights are nothing but a nuisance and are seen as something negligible. What is most disturbing is the continuous disrespect towards the environment and the political and personal interests involved in this case." This "continued disrespect" has included a number of human rights violations in the past.

For example, six Brazilian environmental activists were murdered in separate incidences in 2001, including Ademir Alfeu Federicci, a fierce opponent of Belo Monte and leader of the grassroots organization "Movement for the Development of the Transamazon and Xingu". It was rumored that the activists were murdered by contractors hired by wealthy business men and land owners in the area.

The company involved in the construction of the dam, Electronorte, was also involved in the building of the Tucurui dam in the 1980s, according to Amazon Watch. The company has stated in the past that hydroelectric power poses no threat to the environment. However the National Institute for Amazonian Research have claimed that rotting vegetation from the previous Tucurui dam now contributes to one-sixth of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions. At a press conference on 4 February, the Brazilian Mines and Energy Minister, Edison Lobao, reiterated the importance of the power station for the Brazil's electricity security and added "that there will be no turning back" on the project.

However environmental groups have said that they will continue to oppose the construction, even despite the fact that the company who is contracted to build the dam must pay $830 million to protect the environment and the local population. As Poirier told MediaGlobal: "To imply that Belo Monte will bring development, health, and sanitation services to indigenous and other riverine communities in the area are [sic] a fallacy meant to generate public support for a mega-infrastructure project with enormous human and environmental consequences that no mitigation plan could possibly solve."

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